The following contains spoilers from Monday’s series finale of “McMillions.”
Since it launched last month, “McMillions” has become must-see TV. HBO’s six-part documentary series, about a scam to defraud the McDonald’s Monopoly game in the 1990s, combines strong characters, the surprise of a largely forgotten crime and a sociocultural backdrop that seems both impossibly distant from and profoundly similar to our own. In other words, it replicates the “Chernobyl” effect: familiar enough to attract one’s attention, and eye-opening enough to hold it, strung out over six scintillating weeks.
In advance of Monday night’s finale, Times staff writer Meredith Blake, TV editor Matt Brennan and TV critic Robert Lloyd convened to discuss the episode’s closing bombshell, the truth behind the phrase “victimless crime” and what made the series such a success.
Brennan: I have to say, I was delighted that “McMillions” held one last bombshell in reserve for the finale: the assertion that Ma Colombo, Jerry Colombo’s mother, was the confidential informant whose tip to the FBI broke the case wide open — and that she did it in the battle over her grandson, not the McDonald’s Monopoly game. The episode even pulls off a bait-and-switch (or two) in the process, hinting that it might have been flight attendant Lee Cassano or Colombo’s brother, Frank, and sister-in-law, Heather. Was I the only one who didn’t see Ma coming?
Blake: I had no idea, and came into the episode suspecting either Frank or Gloria Brown. As I was watching the finale, I had to rewind a few times to follow Lee Cassano’s version of events, and definitely didn’t feel as though it added up. So the Ma Colombo/Keyser Söze twist was definitely surprising. But I also found it terribly tragic. She only did it to spite Robin Colombo and get custody of her grandson — and even shared information about Robin’s parents’ involvement in the scheme to ensure they wouldn’t get custody. Devious! And while she and Robin have reconciled, poor Francesco is still clearly processing it all.
Lloyd: I had not been thinking about the informant at all, and would have guessed neither Lee nor Ma. (Guessing in these things is about as useful as political polling, I find.) Both Lee’s confession and Frank and Heather’s version implicating Ma felt pretty left field, and equally possible, though the second was certainly the more dramatic. More interesting to me was the finally answered question of how “Uncle” Jerry Jacobson did it and the accidental nature of how it began, getting hold of those special envelope seals, and the simple trick of disappearing into a men’s room to evade his minder as he traveled about on official prize business.
Blake: Maybe Season 2 will investigate the stickers and who mailed them? I would watch it.
Brennan: What is so incredible to me about how Jerry did it is how it was a crime of opportunity, as much as it required a diabolical plan. Without those seals dropping in his lap, there’s no scam — and no “McMillions.” It sort of fits the whole gestalt of the series that anyone can be tempted into a bad deed.
Blake: Sure, but it also took someone who was willing to exploit that mistake ruthlessly. I was struck by his ex-wife, Marcia, when she suggested that Jerry probably just intimidated Hilda (the lady from the accounting company) into allowing him to take the briefcase into the bathroom. “I’ve seen a lot of people not stand up to Jerry. They’d rather take a little pass than go in for a confrontation.” It really summed up why he was such a frightening character, ultimately. He’s a master manipulator who can detect people’s vulnerabilities.
And he knew, or sensed, that many of the people who got involved in this scam did so because the promise of easy money was too enticing to pass up.
Brennan: I agree that Jerry, who we never meet in the series, comes across as a master manipulator. But one of the most ingenious features of “McMillions,” for me, is the way it suggests the sociocultural conditions that made people become participants, and then victims, of the scheme. Lee Cassano, Gloria Brown, George Chandler — the scam’s rank and file, as it were — are representatives of the striving that we’re told is at the heart of “the American Dream,” and they are ultimately betrayed by the very desire for more that’s been inculcated in them. (It reminds me of “Black Monday,” “Lodge 49,” “On Becoming a God in Central Florida,” and other recent fictional stories in which the heroes buy into — and then try to free themselves from — various schemes to get ahead.) Thanks to Jerry Jacobson and Colombo, the McDonald’s Monopoly became a “rigged game,” which is an almost too-perfect metaphor for the modern economy.
Lloyd: The tragedy of that episode to me was the incidental destruction of two businesses, Simon Marketing — which managed the Monopoly game for McDonald’s — and Dittler Brothers — which printed the game pieces. I liked that workingman’s chorus.
Blake: Yes, this is what I was getting at in my piece about the new wave of scams in pop culture. The story also touches on “Quiz,” a limited series about a British couple accused of cheating their way to a win on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” and in both cases the supposedly victimless crime targeting a deep-pocketed corporation ends up really screwing over the working stiffs. Ronald McDonald got out of this just fine.
Without getting too spoilery, both shows rely a lot on humor. There are some darkly hilarious moments in the “McMillions” finale, most of which revolve around Robin Colombo. I am thinking of the moment when she’s visiting Jerry’s grave, stumbles and then screams. “Ugh, these heels!”
The thing I’m still trying to decide is whether she’s treated compassionately or as a joke. (Did we need to see her blow her nose into that dish towel?) Perhaps now is the time I should note that Robin sounds exactly like Amy Sedaris — and also seems like a character Amy Sedaris would play.
Brennan: I’d have said “joke” until the tail end of the finale, when she forgives Ma Colombo and seems to be forgiven by her. There’s redemption for Robin here, having paid her dues and, as she puts it, rebuilt her life from nothing multiple times over. That is the note that the docuseries ends on in the case of many of its subjects — people who, with time, are willing to let bygones be bygones and look back over their mistakes with the wisdom of hindsight.
Lloyd: The delight of it was all about the reunions, reconciliations and surprise new friendships. It was good to see Gloria Brown rekindle her friendship with Robin (Robin’s reconciliation with her mother in law was less moving), and George forgive Dwight, who had brought him into the scheme. But best of all was seeing prosecutor Mark Devereaux having a laugh together in a coffee shop booth with Uncle Jerry’s stepbrother, Marvin Braun, whom he had prosecuted. There may have been some staging and manipulation there, and they were brief scenes, but it framed the series finally as a comedy, with order succeeding chaos.
Blake: I absolutely loved the kicker — Frank’s teenage son is now working at McDonald’s. Truly the sort of thing you can’t make up.
Another character I’m fascinated by is Uncle Jerry’s accomplice, A.J. Glomb, who admits without a second of hesitation that he’d do it all over again “tomorrow.”
Lloyd: Well it is a case of characters, mostly made more vivid by being slightly (or extremely) comical and by being people we’re invited to like, rather than hate, or even pity particularly. Even the feds, as embodied by talkative FBI special agent Doug Mathews, seem charming, like something out of a small-town comedy. I was amused too by Uncle Jerry’s lawyers, so smooth and confident and so ready to admit finally that there was no case. Glomb is even more insouciant. It’s easy to picture him in the upcoming fictional version. Too bad Dennis Farina isn’t around to play him.
And, as Matt tweeted, the Southern accents don’t hurt.
Brennan: Matt Damon is gonna finally win his acting Oscar for playing Doug in the movie version. Mark my words!
Blake: He’s playing Doug? Surely that’s a part Dean Winters was born to play!
Brennan: That’s purely speculative, but I’d hate to see a movie version in which Doug isn’t a main character. Which, as Robert points out above and in his initial piece on the series, is one of the central reasons for its appeal: “McMillions” develops a rich array of characters that other documentaries might leave as mere talking heads, and that is what makes it such a compelling watch. In fact, most “prestige” dramas could learn a thing or two from its development, thematic subtlety, depth and lack of self-seriousness. Definitely one of my favorites of the young year so far.
Lloyd: Given a preponderance of dark and twisted true crime series, I’m happy to see something that has some light and air to it. The Monopoly scam did real damage (many more people we’re indicted than we ever meet, and we don’t know badly or how permanently their lives might have been affected), but the suggestion at least that one might find a way back from a bad mistake is a cheering thought in a dreadful time. We should welcome them when they come.
Blake: Just not by shaking hands.